JEWELLERY AND THE NAPOLEONIC COURT
The years that followed the French Revolution represented a total rejection of the Old Regime. Yet in 1795, the Directoire period brought with it a return to luxury, which was the perfect alibi to revive jewellery at the entire Court.
The proclamation of the New Empire in 1804 also witnessed the return of the majestic French Court.
This was demonstrated by Napoleon Bonaparte’s coronation at Notre Dame de Paris when he took on the splendour of the Old Regime and used many royal symbols. It was probably one of the most luxurious ceremonies in our history.
His gold crown, designed by Isabey and made by the goldsmith Biennais, was decorated with laurel leaves, representing each one of his victories. Just like Charlemagne, the ceremony was organised under the Pope’s patronage, in this case, Pius VII. The jewel was at the centre of the power of the New Empire and encouraged French art and crafts. Napoleon tried to fill the court with nobles of the Old Regime so as to legitimate his newly acquired power. He had to prove his worth by his manner of governing. On the subject of Napoleon, the Prince of Metternich wrote “One of his biggest regrets was not to be able to call upon the principle of legitimacy as the basis of his power”.
He needed a court full of riches, splendour, Babylonian parties and colossal victories to justify his power. His excesses were his glory, but were probably also part of his downfall. On the other hand, where Napoleon succeeded in war and conquest, his wife, Josephine de Beauharnais succeeded in dominating fashion.
This strategy was the key to the New Empire dazzling the world. The elegant and refined Empress Josephine inspired the women around her to follow her example. She launched several fashions: Grecian outfits, Russian outfits, cashmere, muslins and flowing gowns in rich colours that showed off her nymph-like body. In 1809 she had more than 176 dresses and purchased more than 500 pairs of shoes per year. Jewels were therefore a necessary addition to her beautiful outfits. A great admirer of precious stones and with a love of luxury, she was a spendthrift. Her expenditure cost over 25 million francs at the time.
Napoleon covered her with jewels: a set of pearls, one of opals and diamonds, one of antique stones, a set of rubies, a set of amethysts and diamonds, a set of turquoises and one of garnets. She also bought other jewels which she had changed according to the latest fashion. The Empress was the best customer of each of the great jewellers of the time, such as Biennais, Nitot, Fonsier or Mellerio. She made several orders per month to tailor her jewellery collection to her wardrobe. Sometimes her lady in waiting, the Countess of Segur, went to place the orders so as to appear more discreet. The sets of very fashionable jewellery were made up of necklaces, bracelets, drop earrings, a belt buckle and different head dresses. For the court’s great festivities, they were made of diamonds or coloured precious stones.
A generous person, she also gave many jewels to the ladies of her court as a gauge of friendship and to foreigners as diplomatic presents. Josephine’s staff sometimes received clothes that she judged no longer fashionable. This short lived fashion was followed by a few but, more importantly, it marked the beginning of a new taste for flashy luxury.
The Court jewels were mostly made up of the most beautiful diamonds in Europe and state-owned precious stones. Napoleon had many jewels reset to befit the Imperial style as only the stones, and not their settings, came under state protection. He began to acquire more jewels to add to the Crown collection following his second marriage, to Marie-Louise. In Napoleonic times, diamonds came from Brazil and were cut in Amsterdam.
Each week, large parties were held in the Tuileries gardens and each member of the Court was obliged to attend. The ladies competed with each other over the richness and splendour of their jewels. Foreigners too, ambassadors for instance, had to follow the example of the Court so as to keep in favour with his majesty the Emperor. Diamonds shone in ballrooms, at concerts, at private parties. This exuberance was heightened following Napoleon’s marriage to Marie-Louise de Habsburg. Wars, conquests and diplomatic relations had an influence on countries and the arts.
Thanks to its beauty and its brightness, the diamond took a central place in ornaments for the first time. It had a long secondary role, surrounded by coloured gemstones, and designated an indicator of power and magical forces. Towards the end of the 17th century, many imitations were discharged from their negative connotation. Before, fake gems were made for swindling or to satisfy the middle-class, who wanted to imitate the nobility. Consequently, fake jewellery was introduced within the Royal Courts, but only allowed to wear in the day.
Text ©World Luxury Jewellers